Five Hundred Candles

When I had the idea for 500 candles, my intentions were for it to be a relaxing, meditative experience. The candles would one by one be extinguished over the course of around 45 minutes, by the audience acting as the performers. The room would gradually become darker and darker until pitch darkness and complete silence remained.

Having 500 candles in one room, to me, never seemed like it would be dangerous or get out of hand. I’m not sure why it never occured to me the amount of heat 500 candles would produce, and the effect the candles would all have on one another--having so many candles in such a small space caused all of the candles, which were originally rated to be 3-4 hour burns, to burn at a much faster rate. Fifteen minutes was essentially how long it took for the candles to be entirely reduced to wax pools in sand. The guests did not know what they were in for at all, i had prefaced it to some of them by saying it will be relaxing, but other than that, and the title being “500 candles” there really was not much clarity prior to arriving. I was communicating with them during the event by typing text on a computer and using a dictation software through a speaker in the performance space. This as well as the security cameras placed by the owners of the space, created the feeling of a sterile test environment, as if they were the subjects of an experient. This was unsettling for some, others felt indifferent.

As the night rapidly progressed, the guests soon faced an issue which i never thought actually happen. Fire. Not just candle flames, but fire. The candles began to burn down and merge into one another as the wax pools formed in the sand that was supporting them. The heat from all of the wicks became hot enough to ignite the wax (or the sand, i’m actually still not entirely sure as to what happened) and larger flames began to form. What was once intended to be a relaxing experience, turned in to a panic as everyone in the room quickly realized that it was their responsibility to contain these small fires, or let irreperable damage occur to the performance space, the building, or themselves. The extinguishing devices became obsolete in the process as they did not have long enough handles to protect people’s hands from the growing fire. I had placed a fire extinguisher in the room as a safety precaution, but it took on a larger role when the fires started by presenting a perverse incentive. Yes, it was there, but was it appropriate to use it? This caused even more tension, since if it were used it would certainly handle the flames, but what repercussions would come from it? The extinguisher became almost as crucial to the piece as the candles themselves.

Simultaneously to this, i was sitting blindly in another room, my only connection to the performance being the dictation. I could hear what was going on, but could not see. The most interesting part of this to me, was that while all of this was going on, all of the panic, all of the flames, there was not a single sound that was out of the ordinary. No one spoke loudly, or at all. No one was verbally in a panic, no one was communicating with anyone else besides in their physicality. To the best of my knowledge, it was going just as planned. Then, even more intriguing, after all of this panic, once the candles were all out, everyone returned to their seats and sat in silence. I didn’t plan to give any further instruction as i figured the guests would all leave on their own, but they didn’t. Since i wasn’t watching the performance, i wasn’t sure if it had finished or not. Finally i told them it was okay to leave, and in small groups they all left.

The piece began as an interesting, albeit slightly dull, but relaxing experience meant to mimic a personal experience of my own. However, it became something new, something that i did not expect, nor did anyone else. That is why it was so successful in my eyes. The reality and unexpectedness of the situation, as well as the emotions produced by the participants, caused a completely raw performance which caused a group panic, as well as group cooperation. To the performers, everything was going wrong, there was no longer a performance, rather just the dire need to extinguish the fire--but that wasn't the case at all, the performance just beginning.

I have to say, my favorite part about this project was the book I made to document it. I assembled the pages by hand using scissors, tape and glue, and then photocopied the raw pages to fabricate a finalized form. The book exists purely in physical space, as no part of it exists on the computer, whatsoever.